Lesson #4: Figuring Out What is Right and Deciding to Do It

September 29th, 2012

In Tolkien’s fiction, although the moral decisions characters must make are often complex and therefore difficult, there is always a choice that is right—not just right for that person or right for that situation, but right in a more universal sense. And if in Middle-earth, there is always a choice that is right, there is also a choice that is wrong. In his portrait of absolute truth, objective right and wrong, and good and evil which is not relative, Tolkien presents a world that will feel familiar to Christian readers.

Tolkien’s protagonists are what previous generations would have called virtuous, a word that has somewhat gone out of fashion in our time. Tolkien’s readers, young and old, but perhaps particularly the young, find in his characters moving examples of faith, hope, love, perseverance, courage, and humility, examples which can serves as models to aspire to in their own lives. While Tolkien said he hoped his writing would lead to “the encouragement of good morals in this real world,” readers today might express this concept a little differently.

They might say Tolkien’s writing inspires them to do better and to be better, or perhaps that it inspires them to hold on and not give up. They might also say that Tolkien’s stories remind them that the virtuous life is not dry, dull, or out of date—but high adventure.

As if to mirror the complex moral choices we often face in the real world, Tolkien fills The Hobbit with difficult choices. In chapter five Bilbo must decide whether to kill Gollum or spare him, and in Bilbo’s decision, Tolkien shows the type of careful thinking that must be done in complicated situations to discern what is right. Initially Bilbo decides it would be just to kill the vicious creature because it had meant to kill him. But then the hobbit comes up with four reasons why this would not be right. First, Bilbo is invisible, giving him an unfair advantage. Second, Bilbo has a sword and Gollum does not, another element which would make slaying him unfair. Third, Bilbo reasons that Gollum has not actually threatened to kill him nor has he actually tried to yet. Finally, and most importantly, Bilbo sees Gollum with pity, as someone who is miserable, alone, and lost. After this careful and deliberate thinking, despite his fear and doubt, Bilbo knows what he must do. Strengthened and lifted by this resolve, he leaps over Gollum rather than killing him.

Bilbo faces similar difficult choices when he must decide whether or not to violate Thorin’s trust and offer the Arkenstone to Bard, and then whether or not to return to the dwarves where he will certainly face Thorin’s wrath. In each of these difficult choices, the text suggests that there is a right choice. Richard Purtill has written that Bilbo finds himself in “a complex situation,” one in which he must make “a lonely moral decision.” In rejecting the offer of the Elvenking, who has promised that if the hobbit stays with them he will be honored and thrice welcome, Bilbo concludes, “I don’t think I ought to leave my friends like this, after all we have gone through together.” Even in his choice of whether to keep the trolls’ plunder or not there is a right decision to be discerned. As we find out in The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo determines he must give it away since it was originally stolen.

While finding the right answer is clearly needed in great decisions, the morality of right choices can also be seen in many of the small deeds in The Hobbit as well. In chapter nine, Bilbo makes sure to put the keys which he has stolen back on the guard’s belt with the hope it will save him some trouble when the elves learn of the escape. After turning over the Arkenstone to Bard in chapter sixteen, Bilbo is concerned that he get back in time to wake Bombur as he promised. He knows that if he is late, the wrath of Thorin will fall on Bombur for accepting the hobbit’s offer to take his watch and Bilbo does not want blame to extend to anyone but himself. In the final chapter, in return for the food and wine he took during the dwarves’ imprisonment, Bilbo insists on giving the Elvenking a necklace of silver and pearls. Noting that it is the right thing to do and implying that his conscience has been bothering him about his theft, Bilbo explains that even a burglar has feelings.

In The Hobbit, just as in our own world, Tolkien shows that after struggling between difficult choices, the right choice will ultimately be clear. He also shows that when someone listens to his conscience and tries to do the right thing, even if not always fully successful, those intentions will be honored and rewarded.

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